Is being ‘hangry’ a real thing?

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published September 26, 2018

Key Takeaways

When you hear the word “hangry,” you probably think of those Snickers commercials: “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” But is “hangry” just a marketing term (a combination of “hungry” and “angry”), or is it a real feeling that people—including busy physicians—sometimes experience?

Turns out, being hangry is a real thing. Perhaps that’s what led to its inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary earlier this year, which defines hangry as “bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger.”

But being hangry is more than just feeling irritable because you’re hungry, researchers believe. Rather, it takes existing negative emotions and puts them into overdrive—especially when you’re not even thinking about how your growling stomach is affecting your dark mood. That’s “hanger” at work.

Inattention adds to hanger

Previous studies have indicated that hunger stimulates some of the same systems, such as the autonomic nervous system and hormones, involved in emotions. For instance, a state of acute hypoglycemia brought on by hunger may spur feelings of anger. In addition, hunger can release the kind of hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, often associated with stress and tension.

“In this way, when you’re hungry, you may view things in a more negative light than when you’re not hungry,” wrote researcher Jennifer MacCormack, PhD student, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, NC, in an article posted on The Conversation.

“But here’s the twist,” she added. “People are most likely to be guided by their feelings when they’re not paying attention to them. This suggests that people may become hangry when they aren’t actively focused on their internal feelings, but instead wrapped up in the world around them, such as that terrible driver or that customer’s rude comment.”

The hangry bias

To test this hypothesis, MacCormack and assistant professor Kristen Lindquist, PhD, also in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC Chapel Hill, performed two types of experiments.

In the first, adult study participants—some hungry, some full—looked at negative, positive, and neutral emotional images. They were then shown an ambiguous pictograph. Hungry people had the same reaction as full people to the positive and neutral images. But after seeing a negative emotional image, hungry participants had a negative reaction to the ambiguous pictograph.

“This suggests that the hangry bias doesn’t occur when people experience positive or even neutral situations,” MacCormack explained. “Instead, hunger only becomes relevant when people confront negative stimuli or situations.”

In the second type of experiment, the researchers tasked participants—again, some hungry and some full—to write a story. Some were told to write a story that tapped into their emotions, while the others were told not to focus on emotions at all. Then all the participants performed a long, tedious computer task—at the end of which the computer was designed to “crash.”

The researchers discovered that the hungry participants who hadn’t focused on feelings beforehand acted more hangry (feeling more stressed, hateful, and other negative emotions) than both full participants and hungry participants who had written about emotions.

“It’s not the case that being hungry makes you a jerk,” Dr. Lindquist said. “You need to have some sort of instigating context. (Hangry) people attribute their reactions to the context, and hunger turns up the dial on what otherwise would be a mildly angry response.”

The researchers emphasized that hungry people who tapped into their emotions for greater self-awareness were able to nullify the hangry reaction. They published their findings in the journal Emotion.

How to avoid being hangry

How can you avoid becoming hangry? First, pay more attention to your hunger, MacCormack advised. Eat a protein-filled breakfast or lunch for lasting energy, and plan some snacks in advance.

If you find yourself starving but can’t eat right away, then what can you do? “Most importantly, your awareness can make all the difference,” MacCormack noted. “Yes, maybe you’re hungry and starting to feel road rage, overwhelmed with your task deadline, or wounded by your partner’s words. But amid the heat of those feelings, if you can, step back for a moment and notice your growling stomach.”

If you can hit the pause button, you may realize that it’s hunger that’s aggravating your stress or irritation. “This awareness then gives you the power to still be you, even when you’re hungry,” she explained.

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